What Gods Demand

Part 6 of The New Goddess

Collared. Chained. Dressed in finery, given the finest meals, housed in opulence. Even these chains are gold. That girl keeps me like a pet. No, not even like a dog, which can be trained for some valued purpose, but something lower: a pitiful, pampered, useless bauble of a prisoner.

There is no way to fall any further, and I have had plenty of time to reflect on the fact that my predicament is wholly my own fault. The moment it all went wrong plays in my mind’s eye on constant loop, offering ample opportunity to remember each and every mistake that led me here.

First, the gloating. I was so eager to savor the moment of my victory, to draw it out as long as I could, blissfully unaware that the girl was forming and strengthening a bond with the Godsblood from across the cavern. Not even consciously, either! She was simply too naïve to have shielded her mind against intrusion as I did, and the will of that dead blasted god, unable to influence me, seduced her instead. Finding a willing host, it claimed her. If I had simply grasped the damned thing immediately, I would have had it.

Or the insult of calling me small-minded. I should have ignored and punished her insolence, but my pride demanded I hear her explanation. The worst thing? She was right. I was too blinded by my lust for revenge to see the bigger picture. I just had never given much thought to gods at all—their power has never meant more to me than the means to an end—and what I always sought was recognition.

Ha! “Recognition.” How did a girl so much younger than me manage to throw in my face the truth that my own ambitions were so utterly childish?

Then, to add insult to injury, she claimed I could have easily achieved my goals by allying with her from the beginning. “You could have courted me and poisoned my father!” Perhaps there is something to that. I didn’t put all the pieces together until it was too late, but her “bad luck” leading to four deaths in less than a year’s span?

The first was a healer preparing the body of that poor fool Lange who warmed the seat of my position before I insisted he take an early retirement. Nobody even bothered to connect this death to the other three, so that healer must have been much less important or her death otherwise unsurprising. I thought little of it myself until I received a tidy note slipped under my door, saying only “your secret is safe with me.”

Did you have any idea, Princess, how that note would drive me into a furious search for its writer? I never suspected you.

Then two of your suitors. Two! Each within weeks of meeting you! If anyone had thought to bring this to my attention at the time, I might have realized, but I spent as little of my time as possible thinking about the affairs of the girl who routinely contrived excuses to interrupt me with her presence, stealing too much of my attention already.

Then another healer met you, had some tragic accident the first time he took you out gathering herbs, and your father decided to ask me to cleanse you of curses. Of course the curse wasn’t a spell, it was the girl herself the whole time—a bloody-minded princess who imagined herself my secret ally.

I came to pity you. Your father never saw his daughter for who you were, did he? Even with all the evidence in front of him, His Indolent Majesty could not see past the role he expected you to fulfill. And if your little indiscretions weren’t so ham-fisted, immature, and sloppy, maybe I would never have had to intervene.

By then you were gone, of course, but how I wanted to shake some sense into you! “Look!” I’d say to myself as though you could hear me. “Murder is not always the answer! A duke starts sniffing around suspicious about the murder of his heir? Watch how I don’t get my hands dirty ending him. Better to disgrace the poor bastard, cast him as a part of the rebellion, discredit his claims as lies, have his family stripped of their lands and titles.”

Of course there were still the rumors. I could—and should—have let them fester in those years you were gone. How bad would it have gotten, I wonder? Your father might even have been forced to disown you and make a new heir for himself.

But then there was that blasted pity reminding me of my own ineptitude when I was young and had more ambition than sense. Much harder to evade notice when you’re offing young nobles or members of the royal court, though. That’s not a hobby for amateurs, Princess. I dealt with the rumors for you. You’re welcome for that, by the way. I’m sure with your pristine reputation intact, you were welcomed home with warm smiles and glad hearts.

Of course, I can’t know for sure. I had been replaced and ejected from my position within the court. Your father could never appreciate the long game, and he grew impatient that I didn’t supply magical solutions that were quick, easy, and wrong, like his buddy Lange preferred to.

Perhaps had things gone differently I could have forged an alliance with you. I could have taught you much about patience and subtlety. Yes, we could have poisoned your father, and I would have shown you how to evade suspicion, but courted you, child? You were an insipid girl of some seventeen years mooning over a sorceress of nearly thirty. I did eventually realize you harbored some fascination for me, but only because your repeated advances were distractingly clumsy and obnoxious. What on earth do you think a girl that age could have to interest a woman twelve years her senior?

“Oh, how my younger self would have wept in despair to see just how completely devoid of romantic interest she was from your perspective.”

Without transition, without warning, I am no longer alone in this room. How easy it is to forget that Natalia reads minds now, and my thoughts may never again be solely my own. Simply think about her enough, and that might as well be a summons.

“Or a prayer.”

I lift my head from its despondent slump and bare my teeth toward my jailer. “Enjoying the show? Does it amuse Her Highness to watch me relive the greatest mistakes of my life?”

“Yes.” The girl kneels, looking at me eye-to-eye as I slump against the wall. “Although there are a great many more amusing things I imagine doing with you once you’re properly trained.” She still wears a crown made of the same god-bone material as the seamless collar around my neck, flaunting her claim to me. But she does not claim my mind. I will defy her until the end. My pride demands it. My mind remains my own.

“It’s true that I will not take your mind by force,” the godlet replies infuriatingly to words I do not speak aloud. “Few things are more boring than a puppet show for which one must act as both performer and audience, after all.”

I offer her another psychic show, vividly imagining a scene of my magic tearing her to pieces. She can’t take this, at least, away from me.

“‘Can’t?’ No, kitten, there is a vast gulf between ‘will not’ and ‘cannot.’ I will demonstrate.”

I brace for whatever She plans to do to me. The Goddess says nothing, and I feel unchanged, but I hope Her plan works. I would hate to continue being so pointlessly petulant in resisting Her. Maybe that picklock is right, that I will be freed of my chains once I learn to love Her too.

And what’s stopping me? Must I cling foolishly to my first impression of Her as nothing more than a teenage girl? That She grew into a fine woman is the least among the traits I have refused to see. She mastered a magical discipline no less formidable than my own. She led Her friends in a quest to stop me and kept up with me no matter my attempts to stop or slow Her down. As a mortal woman She surpassed me. Now as Goddess She surpasses all.

It would be within Her right to destroy me for all I did to Her, and for rejecting Her divinity, but instead She shows me kindness. She sees my worth, even now. Oh, Goddess, I do love You. Please, give me the chance to show You how well my magic can serve You!

The chains dissolve and fall away, turned to ash by my internal admission of love toward the beautiful Goddess before me. Her face is so close. Would She permit me a blessing, now that I understand the inherent truth of worship? I lean forward, lips parted. Goddess, may I have a—?

What in all the hells am I doing?

I flinch back before making contact. The chains reappear.

“I trust this has been educational? I will not repeat the lesson.” The princess speaks with such an insufferably gentle voice. “‘Princess,’ ah, you should know that I have gifted that title to another. I shall introduce you to her very soon, but in the meantime do find a more accurate way of thinking of me.”

The monster in human skin—how’s that for accurate?—vanishes. Brief as that “demonstration” was, I’ve never felt more violated. It’s like I was someone else, but… it didn’t feel like someone else. I really loved her.

I now have this memory squatting in my mind, one of loving my own captor, one of hunger toward her. My stomach turns, sending me into a coughing, retching, dry-heaving mess on my hands and knees. I can’t scrub this memory away. I permanently know what it’s like to feel so disgustingly submissive. And to enjoy it! To know what it’s like to be satisfied—to have my lifelong ache for any damn recognition for my brilliance and talents satisfied—by the attention of a girl who lucked into winning power that should rightfully be mine.

Horror’s icy fingers tighten their grip the more I dwell on it. She could choose to inflict this on me with a snap of her fingers, and I am shielded only by the paper-thin protection that she would find it boring to simply write obedience directly into my mind. Boredom is the only reason I’m not already a docile sycophant crawling on her hands and knees, drooling for permission to kiss that girl’s feet, at peace only when fulfilling my role as her useless pet, begging to lay in her lap and feel her stroke my head, whimpering pathetically when another pet occupies her attention, barking on command, eating from her hand…

My heart pounds in fear. My dress clings to skin grown sticky with sweat. My imagination conjures scenario after scenario, each more demeaning than the last. If I ever start to bore her, will she force that fate on me anyway? After all, better boring and compliant than boring and willful, right?

I have to find a way out of this trap. I will not have my personality tampered with again.

The rules of my captivity are simple enough. The more I struggle to break free, the shorter my leash. When I spend the day sinking corrosive magic into my restraints, my only reward is getting pinned helplessly to the wall, unable to do so much as reach for the food or drink supplied to me. Yet even then, the girl insists on making a show of her “benevolence.” The moment I hunger or thirst, she appears in a flash of light. No admonishing word passes lips that offer me a sympathetic smile as though she were not the one responsible for my helplessness.

She limits herself instead to tiny cruelties: pouring wine down my throat too fast to swallow so that it spills from down my chin onto my clothes or pushing one dainty morsel of food at a time into my mouth, cooing praises each time I chew and swallow.

When her fingers slip too far into my mouth, I bite as hard as I can, to no effect. It isn’t as though I expect there to be, but the act of defiance still matters. I expect punishment—maybe temporary starvation—but her venomous mind is capable of worse cruelties than my own imagination can conjure. Natalia begins chewing my food for me, prying my mouth open to spit each pre-chewed bite onto my tongue, then holding my mouth and nose closed until I swallow.

The punishment achieves its intended outcome. I can’t bear a repeat of that indignity, and I stop trying to escape.

The less I struggle, the more freedom I am permitted. I earn a reprieve from the taunting visits of my captor. My chains slacken with each day, and I am granted my first visit from someone other than that girl. Fool that I am, I assume anyone else here must also be a prisoner, and I quickly learn that no, I am special. I alone am uniquely gifted with enough pride and self-worth to not immediately domesticate myself to the first person who offers me food and shelter.

Against my own will, however, I learn to behave enough for my world to expand. The chains gradually allow me enough length to sleep in the bed, then to explore more of the rooms that comprise my enclosure.

By the time Natalia visits me again, it’s been a long enough while that she catches me off guard.

“I hope you’re ready to be tamed,” she says, and her voice carries an unsettling quality that opens a pit in my stomach. Is it my imagination, or is something in her eyes sharper than before?

I hate you. I think the words as loudly as I can. Read my mind all you like.

“I know, kitten. For a feral thing like you, it’s a scary process, isn’t it? But you’re doing very well for me so far, and I think you’re ready for the next steps.”

An escalation, then. What new nightmare does she have in store for me?

“Yes, you can think of it as a dream, if you’d like. I told you before that I will not puppet you, nor even write your lines, but I do enjoy setting a stage.” The more she talks, the more off she seems. “Oh, and to help you get into character, I may fudge your memories just a bit, but I do want you in full possession of your own history at the moment you decide to accept me in your heart.”

I barely register the threats, too distracted am I by the changes I sense. There is something wrong with her, something at the edge of my perception, a sickness blooming in her soul that wasn’t there before. Natalia diminishes inside herself as something else—

“…new personal attendant and housemaid.”

Her Royal Highness, Princess Canina Rosadeus Lillian Ruten, offers me a polite nod of recognition. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Velle.” Unexpectedly, the princess seems to hesitate for a moment as if unsure how to proceed, but only for a moment, before extending her hand.

I know the Rutennian rituals of fealty, and I smoothly take her hand in mine to place the appropriate kiss on her fingers. “It will be my greatest pleasure to serve you, Princess.”